The Joy of Inheriting Lousy Team Members

There are few things worse as the incumbent leader of a team than inheriting crappy team members because the leader before you had no spine.

However you’ve found yourself in charge of people—whether you’ve gotten promoted or transferred within your current company (congratulations!), scored a job as a manager in a new organization (yay for you!), or you weren’t planning to lead but you were standing in the back and then everyone turned around (yes, your nightmare can come true)—you were never naïve enough to think that your team would be uniformly amazing. No, you expected a laggard, a B+ player or two to maybe round out the A team. Maybe one B- guy on the rocks, max. You rightfully assumed that your predecessor was building a team of winners, because that’s just what leaders do when they show up to work, no?

So, your crushing disappointment is understandable when it becomes apparent midway through your welcome meeting that your team is like a boat with a bunch of holes in it. And some of those holes are substantial.

Why is it not considered a corporate crime to pass substandard people on to the next leader? Why is it not a fineable offense? Why is it somehow okay for Bill to raise his eyebrows and say in a conspiratorial tone, “Yeah, you’ve really gotta do something about Pete,” before moving to LA to run the Western region? Why is Bill not ashamed to leave you in the dust of the “Pete Problem”? And when you ask Bill what he has done about Pete—like what kinds of conversations and performance plans and heart-to-hearts and coming-to-Jesus meetings he’s had with him over the 12 years he’s apparently been a “real piece of work”—at best he offers a sheepish shrug and then dashes off to LAX. Why aren’t there whistleblowers for these kinds of leadership crimes? Wikileaks where are you?

So, now you’re a leader of people you wish someone else had the gumption to manage before you started.

Wondering how to handle it? I’ve got you covered. Read on:

  1. Rue the day you became a leader of people. Managing people is hard, and the weirdest part of it all is that you signed up for it (like how people pay personal trainers good money to get them to do 75 burpees in a row). If you’re still drawn to it—this whole leadership thing—because you think you can do great things with and through people, read on.
    If you’d like to tap out because it’s just too bananas for you, that’s great too. Zero judgment. Not everyone wants to be a leader, and that’s okay. Stop reading this article and read this far more amusing one instead.

  1. Anticipate it. The faster you accept and anticipate the dirty work (or more appropriately, the handling others’ dirty work) as you grow, climb, and gain more experience taking over teams, the sounder you’ll sleep at night. Expect that 87% of the people on any team you take over are at some alarming state of disengagement and that you’ll have work to do with everyone—not just the ones Bill chose to sweep under the rug for 12 years.

  2. Don’t sweep clean. Asses the mess. Make your own assessments for the first month. Maybe Pete actually has potential and was floundering under Bill’s style? Maybe, Juanita, Bill’s prodigy is the one that’s the problem? Maybe Pete is the soul of the team, and you’ll risk immediate turnover of key people if you handle him too abruptly? You won’t know any of this until you take the deliberate time to dig deep and assess. Don’t wrap up week one by handing out copies of a Pete-free org chart.

  3. Do get the broom out of its closet, poised for sweeping. Let your boss and HR know about your observations and potential planned key personnel changes—not because you want to hang Bill out to dry, but because you need and want buy-in from the people that care about this kind of thing in your organization. The more support you can garner, the easier the transition will be.

  4. Make your expectations crystal clear. It’s hard for substandard people to be substandard when they know what your standard looks like, and that you’re unapologetically committed to them (your people and your standards).

  5. Never tip anyone off. I see this a lot: the new leader wants to salvage the remaining talent on the team and feels inclined to wink and say, “Don’t worry, change is happening soon,” one step short of pointing at Pete’s cube. Let your actions speak louder than your words. (Oh, and you should probably stop winking at work.) Be the leader seen as holding others accountable to the expectations you set forth, rewarding those who over-deliver, and gracefully exiting people if /when those expectations aren’t met.

  6. The Pete Problem. After confirming beyond your reasonable assessment period that Pete is, in fact, a problem, have a caring and candid conversation with him that outlines your concerns. Share your observations about where he’s missing the mark on your expectations and ask him if he’s interested in making some changes to achieve x, y, and z. Show empathy if and when Pete expresses surprise that he’s not the MVP of the team, remembering that Bill likely didn’t level with him over the years. Work with HR to set a clear, fair course of action that gets him on a path to improvement or exiting with dignity. And please, never be a party to the “Pete Pass-Off,” transferring him to another part of the organization. (Put him and your company out of your misery.)

  7. Never disparage Bill or Pete. It’s just the classy thing to do. Don’t ever say things like, “Mark my words, he’s going to wreck the entire Western region.”

Now that you know how to handle things step-by-step, these are some similar situations where you might need to host an intervention for your crappy employee(s):

Special Ops. Sometimes you’ve been brought in on a special operation to kick a team into gear (because the powers that be acknowledge the previous leader wasn’t cutting it), and your new boss even discussed in your interview that you’d “have full support to make the changes you need.” But then something funny happens: you start doing what you were hired to do, and said boss or HR starts to get nervous because now it’s getting real. Sometimes you’ll need to slow down, present (again) a clear plan of what changes you’ll be making and what kind of impact can be expected.

Paint a picture of what the future looks like with and without the substandard performer to help illustrate the best way forward. By overcommunicating you’ll provide reassurance that what you’re doing is on-plan, reinforce the original buy-in, and turn seismic shockwaves into mere tremors.

The sacred cow situation. You might be hellbent on sweeping the team clean, building a team of A-players, and other metaphors to make the point. But sometimes there are special people in organizations that get to stay—not because it’s right—because they are sacred. “Jean isn’t very good but she’s been here for 28 years and she’s close to retirement, so…” Make your decision if it’s the hill worth dying on to move Jean out to pasture, or whether you can work around Jean and still achieve amazing things.

The most important thing to keep in mind as you become a new manager is that you vow to NEVER be the one who leaves poor performers behind for someone else to deal with. Recognize that your team is a direct reflection of you: if they’re doing fantastic stuff, you get to bask in some of that glory because you helped set the environment up to make that happen. If they aren’t cutting it, it’s also on you to address the issue which might include doing uncomfortable things like telling people as much, helping them get better, and possibly making the important decision to move them on. As you get promoted, feel proud of each team member you’ve left for someone else to manage.

Inheriting second-rate team members means a lot of uphill work for new leaders, and let’s be honest, leadership is tough enough as it is without having to deal with someone else’s mess. Let’s commit, as a community of leaders, to do our best at handling the Pete’s of the office so New Manager doesn’t have to spend time wounding (and at the very least confusing) the guy who isn’t cutting it. Performance managing people, while awkward, is completely within our control as leaders to deal with.

Oh, and if you’re the substandard Pete reading this article? Do us all a solid: shape up or ship out, pal.